Ein neues Arrangement für Rompler von Zali Krishna in digitaler Stereoton
1955 is where we must begin, in our search for the roots of the 21st Century synthesized Bach. 30th Street CBS Studios in Manhattan, a twenty-two year old Canadian Pianist, Glenn Gould, is making his debut recording of The Goldberg Variations; a set of thirty variations bracketed by an opening and closing aria, which are at this time not part of the standard piano repertoire, as they were originally intended for a two-manual harpsichord. The studios during this decade would host such epochal recordings as Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and Bernstein’s West Side Story. The Second World War ended ten years ago, Jackson Pollock is still alive for one more year, and the Cold War is in full swing.
These recordings will seal Gould’s reputation, and open his lifelong “love affair with the microphone”. Two years later in 1957 he undertook a tour of the Soviet Union, and was the first North American to play there since the war. However his relationship with the concert hall was less heartfelt than his relationship with the studio, and he retired from live performance in 1964, describing it as an anachronism and a “force of evil”.
1968 is our next stop in this journey. Again we are in Manhattan, in a basement with a modular Moog synthesizer and a jury-rigged 8-track recorder, frankensteined from Ampex components. Wendy Carlos spent five months, a total of a thousand studio hours, patiently assembling a series of Bach interpretations for Moog synth. The monophonic limitations of the machine, and its unreliable tuning, made this a tedious process. “You had to release the note before you could make the next note start, which meant you had to play with a detached feeling on the keyboard.”
The intensive labour would pay off for both Carlos and Moog. Switched-On Bach was a considerable commercial success and the Moog synthesizer was established as the Stradivarius of electronic music. Glenn Gould praised it highly: “The whole record… is one of the most startling achievements of the recording industry in this generation and certainly one of the great feats in the history of ‘keyboard’ performance”.
Between Gould and Carlos the legacy of Bach was transplanted into the post-war North American milieu. It was Manhattan, rather than Leipzig, Vienna or Venice, which established itself as the new heart of the western musical tradition. Like the previous generation of Abstract Expressionists – Pollock, Rothko, Still, De Kooning – the cultural capital of the Cold War was, as surely as the arms race and the space race, an artifact of the struggle for a new supremacy.
1972 on the other side of the Iron Curtain, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris drifts out into the cinema, a heavyweight contender for Kubrick’s crown as the master of science fiction film. The soundtrack counters the swarming clusters of Gyorgy Ligeti with an original score by Eduard Artemyev, featuring the legendary ANS synthesizer; a machine which predated Moog’s by at least a decade. In addition to Artemyev’s brooding abstractions, Solaris counters The Blue Danube of 2001 with Bach’s Ich ruf' zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ performed by Leonid Roizman on organ and electric piano. The graceful spin of Kubrick’s space station, expressed in a trifling Viennese waltz, could not be more distant from the reincarnated dead wife surrendering to zero gravity that is expressed through Bach’s prelude. The theme returns for the last in her series of deaths, accompanied by Artemyev’s electronics. All that is solid melts into oscillations.
1991, at the other end of the Cold War, Wendy Carlos would return to Bach for a 25th anniversary. Switched-On Bach 2000 involved considerably fewer studio hours than its Moog-born predecessor. MIDI technology allowed Carlos to streamline the process and virtualise her playing to free herself for greater creativity in the studio.
Ten years earlier, in 1981, Gould also returned to the scene of the crime, and recorded a mature set of Goldberg Variations. It would be the last production to come out of the 30th Street Studios in Manhattan and his final recording. He died a year later. There have been myriad Goldbergs for piano since Gould’s trailblazing 1955 recording, and a few for synthesizer, including Joel Spiegelmann’s New Age Bach for Kurzweil 250 Digital Synthesizer in 1988.
And so the Goldbergs have been re-established as a key element of the repertoire, as much as the music of Johann Sebastian Bach has been established as fair game for synthesis. Perhaps in the Goldbergs in particular, the limitations of the harpsichord have led to an expression of a mechanical grace, like that of a Jacquard loom or a disk-drive. The legend goes that Bach’s original compositions were intended to be played by the virtuoso Johann Gottlieb Goldberg to alleviate the insomnia of Count Kaiserling. The graceful monotony of the variations produces dream chambers. Not ambient, in our contemporary sense, but rather cascading torrents of data raining down through poor Goldberg’s night shift.
A new century after Gould, Carlos and Artemyev, and while the analogue machines of Moog and Murzin have matured into museum status, the cascading torrents of MIDI data are still very much with us. The post-human Goldberg deserves a hands-off approach. Just as Gould eschewed the concert platform, and the post-war Bach developed in the time machine of studio space where the single take was less important than the larger compositional picture, these new arrangements present a democratised Goldberg played on secondhand machines from the turn of the millennium, and software synthesizers pulled from the dream-aether of the internet.
Let us free poor Goldberg from his tedious labour.
--Zali Krishna, Graz, 2018.
Music by Johann Sebastian Bach MIDI transcription by David J Goldman Arrangement, engineering and programming by Zali Krishna.